Logging company billed $600,000 for negligence in northern Wisconsin forest
MADISON – After a nearly four-month Department of Natural Resources investigation into the cause of the Germann Road Fire, a commercial logging company will be billed for more than $600,000 after the investigation determined the company’s negligence caused the forest fire to start and spread.
Had an on-board fire extinguishing system been properly maintained, the blaze could have likely been snuffed out before it did any damage, according to a WDNR press release issued Monday afternoon.
The fire was the state’s largest in 33 years and burned 7,442 acres in Douglas County.
The fire began about 2:45 p.m. May 14 and burned an area nearly 10 miles long and 1.5 miles wide before it was contained about 9 p.m. on May 15.
Forty-seven structures were destroyed, including 17 homes or cabins, in the Towns of Gordon and Highland.
A logging crew was harvesting timber on industrial timber lands when the fire began. At the time, the crew acknowledged the fire had started at the work site and that they had unsuccessfully attempted to contain it.
However, the investigation found that the crew and company, Ray Duerr Logging, of Rib Lake, Wis., withheld information from department law enforcement officials.
The investigation determined the crew had attempted to contain the fire using a fire extinguisher and a pressurized water system installed on the harvesting equipment and called 911, but the company was negligent for failing to maintain equipment at the logging site that could have prevented, or contained the fire, which was started by the cutting head of a Timberjack 840. Logging company owner Ray Duerr bought the used machine in 2013.
The logging crew was interviewed numerous times by conservation wardens and forestry law enforcement specialists. The focus of the interviews was the operator and his actions that led up to the fire and his attempts to suppress the fire.
During interviews with the DNR officials, company officials and the crew failed to mention there was a pressurized water system on board the Timberjack 840.
The manufacturer of the Timberjack 840 intends the water system to be used for extinguishing fires caused by the equipment. The presence of this system and the attempt to use it was basically concealed from investigators until June 27 when it was tested with the department, insurance investigators, attorneys, and engineers present.
At that time it was discovered that the water tank was full and the hose and nozzle stretched approximately 9.5 feet in front of the cutting head. However when tested, the air pressure system was at 2 pounds per square inch. The owner’s manual indicated a pressure of 55 psi to operate properly. The machine was also mobile.
The investigation determined that the crew had attempted to use the water system to extinguish the fire and water “dribbled out” since it had not been pressurized.
The logging company officials also said they didn’t know if the pressurized water system worked as they had never tested it.
On July 24, the equipment was tested again with insurance investigators, engineers, attorneys, and company officials present. The pressurized water system was charged to just over 50 psi. The system sprayed water for 5 minutes and 40 seconds. The maximum distance was 15-plus feet from the end of the nozzle, the system sprayed water at 10 feet for almost two-and-a-half minutes before it started to weaken
The fire extinguisher on the Timberjack 840 was manufactured in 2001. It appears to have had its six year service done in 2007. The last recorded inspection was May 2010. It was supposed to be inspected annually. According to a fire extinguisher expert, it appears the fire extinguisher worked mechanically; however, it was not clear if it was used properly.
The investigation finally determined that while the cause of the forest fire was accidental and efforts were made to suppress the fire by the logging crew, steps should have been taken in the preparedness and maintenance of the equipment.